‘White trash mixed with black blood’: The truth about Toomelah

THE tiny NSW town of Toomelah has made headlines, and once again it’s because of poverty and community dysfunction. But why has a community that’s received so much attention over the years failed to thrive? CHRIS GRAHAM takes an in-depth look at the town, and a bad government policy that, above all others, has set the community back decades.

FOR A very small town, Toomelah makes an awful lot of headlines. And in its recent history, there have been three that perhaps most defined the community’s history.

One of the headlines was very bad, one depends on your outlook, and one was very good. The latter was when Toomelah’s footy team – the Tigers – won the most prestigious rugby league competition in the country.

Forget the NRL, if you’re an all-Aboriginal team, the only event that matters is the Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout, an annual competition that provides a major boost to the economies of towns lucky enough to host it, with the fan base sometimes topping 25,000.

And so it was that in 1994, against all odds, the mighty Toomelah Tigers won it. It helped that the team had players like Glen Brennan, a former Canberra Raider, in its ranks.

And of course, there was Ewan McGrady, a God not just in Toomelah, but at the highest levels of the game. McGrady is a Rothman’s Medal winner, and was the best league player in the national competition in his day.

The Tigers somehow managed to knock off La Perouse – routinely one of the best teams at the Knockout – in the grand final. And all on ‘Lapas’ home turf.

So that’s the positive headline.

The headline which depends on your outlook came a few years earlier, when Marcus Einfeld, then president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission completed a report into the impoverished community.

It was 1988 – Australia’s bi-centenary year – and Einfeld’s report shocked a nation. Sewage was pooling in the streets, unemployment was near 100 percent, and residents shared a single tap.

An outraged Einfeld lambasted government for the poor state in Toomelah, and shamed them into action.

As a result of the report, roads were sealed, homes were built, the water and sewerage system was fixed and street lighting was installed. Hence the headline was good and bad, depending on your perspective.

Bad in that it lay bare the grinding poverty that enveloped Toomelah; good in that it finally forced government to act. The community was reborn. Or at least it seemed that way, until the third defining headline in Toomelah’s history, which emerged only a month ago.

On May 7, the Sydney Morning Herald’s front page revealed that a NSW bureaucrat had told locals they either accepted the appointment of a ‘government mission manager’, or their community would be bulldozed.

Toomelah was facing, residents believed, a Northern Territory-style intervention.

Despite all the upgrade works, children were still living among raw sewage. The street lights weren’t working; the homes were in poor condition; the roads were still paved, but littered with broken glass and rubbish. Crime was a daily occurrence, and sexual abuse of children, according to residents, was rife, with numerous paedophiles living unchecked in the community.

How Toomelah came to find itself in so much trouble brings us to one other major defining event in the history of the town, although it never made national headlines. Indeed it barely rated a mention at all.

But we’ll come back to that shortly, because how the community came to face the threat of closure requires some explanation.

Firstly, Toomelah never really faced the bulldozers, nor an NT-style intervention. The federal government has no power to move Toomelah residents – or any other NSW community – off their land.

In Australia, land is controlled by the states, not the federal government. The Northern Territory, of course, is not a state. It has self-government, but it’s ultimately controlled by the federal government.

That’s why in 2007, the Howard government was able to launch the Northern Territory intervention. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) is a Commonwealth Act of Parliament. Thus the Commonwealth can amend it.

But the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NSW) is not a Commonwealth act. The feds can’t touch it. In fact, even the NSW Government would struggle.

Under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NSW), the Toomelah community lives on freehold land, held in trust by the Toomelah Local Aboriginal Land Council. In order for the community to be relocated, the NSW Government would need to convince the NSW Parliament to pass a special piece of legislation specifically aimed at compulsorily acquiring the land at Toomelah.

It could then try and forcibly evict the residents. But the NSW Government does not have the numbers in parliament to simply pass any legislation it likes. It must rely on the support of independents and/or the Greens. But even if it did, there is no evidence it ever intended to relocate the community in the first place.

When the Toomelah story broke, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Victor Dominello, told media that a “top down approach” to government control of Aboriginal communities was not what was needed. What he supported was local control of local communities.

So where did the threat of closure come from? One bureaucrat who had neither the power to carry it out, nor the permission of the NSW government to deliver it.

That bureaucrat was Amy Makim. In January 2012 she was employed by the NSW Government as a Community Project Officer with Aboriginal Affairs NSW.

Her role, according to AANSW boss Jason Ardler “was to work with partner agencies in the development of a coordinated strategy for the Toomelah-Boggabilla community”. To undertake this role Ms Makim “was required to conduct some community engagement activities”.

At a community meeting earlier this year, Ms Makim is alleged to have told local workers and community members that problems were so bad at Toomelah that it faced government intervention. That threat was soon passed on to the Herald. After the story broke, AANSW began investigating the allegations that Ms Makim had threatened the community (an allegation she denies). But events quickly took an unexpected turn.

On the evening of May 22 – two weeks after the first headline – Ms Makim logged onto this publication’s website (www.tracker.org.au). She was looking, she later claimed, for details on a story that ABC’s 7.30 Report was expected to run on Toomelah.

In the course of her search, Ms Makim posted a comment at the bottom of an unrelated story, believing at the time that her identity was unknown (she used the fake name ‘Sick of the Whingers’). Unfortunately for Ms Makim, her posting was not anonymous.

Tracker was able to trace her identity. We did so not because we suspected she had links to Toomelah, but because the comments were so extreme that they warranted a closer look. Here’s what Ms Makim wrote:

“I have worked in an Aboriginal former-mission for more than 2 years…. This victimised mentality, co-dependency on government and laziness is so revolting.

“Well done to all the aboriginal people who have worked hard, studied hard and created a life for themselves and their families without the “pity funds” from centrelink…I’m guessing you either had someone with “white work ethics” in your midst..stolen generation or mixed race?? I don’t know any Murri who is an advocate, scholar, professional or person of admiration that doesn’t have a heavy dose of white influence’.

“Face the facts! You have been conquered! Get over it! Get a job, look after your bloody children and stop putting your hand out! You should have put up a better fight to keep your land or more frankly the English should have wiped you all out because the 2.6% of you are costing our country a fortune and making our country a place of ghetto violence!

“I used to be a person of compassion, empathy and looked forward to learning of the culture and empowering the community to be strong, Aboriginal and proud… and I can now honestly say where I have been there is no hope.

“You now have black blood mixed with white trash creating one of the worse kind of human societies. Harsh, shocking? and true!
Australia cannot say sorry any longer, they cannot keep hanging their heads in shame..we didn’t do this, our ancestors did, it is done, we cannot go back only forward.

“So stop bloody whinging and have a go! And P.S Aboriginal came from Africa so you are settlers too!”

Suffice to say, Ms Makim no longer works for the state government.

Head of AANSW, Jason Ardler, himself an Aboriginal man, told Tracker: “When Aboriginal Affairs was informed that Ms Makim was alleged to have made inappropriate remarks about Toomelah (at the community meeting), the agency questioned Ms Makim and she denied the allegation. Further investigation of this matter was overtaken by Aboriginal Affair’s response to Ms Makim’s comments on the Tracker website.

“When it was confirmed that Ms Makim was responsible for the comments on the Tracker website, the agency acted immediately, contacted Ms Makim, stood her down and subsequently accepted her resignation, effective on that day.

“These kinds of statement are repugnant, completely at odds with the values of Aboriginal Affairs and will not be tolerated. These comments have affected Aboriginal Affairs’ reputation and the offense caused is deeply regretted. Aboriginal Affairs apologises to the people of Toomelah for the hurt caused and reaffirms its commitment to working with the community to create real opportunities and positive change.”

Ms Makim’s alleged threats against the community sparked substantial mainstream and Aboriginal media interest. Her comments on tracker.org.au are unlikely to attract the same level of attention, although as it turned out, the 7.30 report did file a major story on Toomelah.

It revisited much of what the Herald had already reported, revealing no more than what anyone with any knowledge of Toomelah already knew. The community is struggling. But so too are most of the state’s former Aboriginal missions and reserves, and there’s more than 60 of them.

The reasons why are many and varied, although one event in particular helps explain the current decay of black bush communities. And it never made the national headlines.

Apart from great footy players, Toomelah had at least one other local talent. A capacity to run a thriving Community Development Employment Program (CDEP).

For the uninitiated, CDEP is an Aboriginal created program where participants, in a broad sense, worked for the dole. It began as a pilot program at the community of Barunga, an hour’s drive east of Katherine.

Ironically, CDEP was unveiled in federal parliament by the Fraser government on May 26, 1977, a date that would later become Sorry Day. Ian Viner, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs told the chamber: “Unemployment benefits have been available to Aboriginals as to other Australians.

“In some cases… the lack of activity when combined with unemployment benefit has produced serious social problems such as alcoholism and other health hazards. CDEP will provide work for all Aboriginals in a particular community who wish to work.”

And they turned out in spades.

From its humble beginnings, CDEP quickly spread across the nation. By 1986, there were more than 4,000 participants, about 1.8 percent of the total Aboriginal population in Australia. Within 10 years, the figure had increased more than seven-fold to almost 29,000 participants.

By 2001, the total number of CDEP participants had grown to 35,400 – roughly 25 percent of the total Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce. There were almost 300 organisations delivering the program, the overwhelming majority of them local Aboriginal community groups.

In Toomelah, as in many Aboriginal communities, there was no shortage of people looking for work. They too embraced CDEP. Local participants provided most of the civil services that local, state and federal governments should provide Aboriginal communities, but rarely do.

By 2009, Toomelah’s CDEP workers ran the local shop through the Toomelah Co-op. CDEP crews kept the streets clean, mowed the parks and gardens and the footy oval, drove the community bus, and repaired and maintained local housing and infrastructure.

In short, CDEP kept the town alive, and all levels of government were only too willing to watch it happen – it was, after all, a dirt cheap way of providing basic services to Aboriginal communities, without having to dip seriously into the pockets of Australian taxpayers.

Rene Adams, who ran the program through the Co-op, says under CDEP Toomelah was a different town.

“It was thriving, it really was,” says Ms Adams. “The community was clean. We had a cemetery crew that looked after the graves. We ran a night patrol, with shifts. They’d watch the school, the Co-op, the (health) clinic, the pre-school, the land council office. And you could have eaten off the roads, they maintained things that well.”

The local community-owned shop employed 26 workers through CDEP, and workers grew hemp to provide pulp for a local paper factory. All up, around 130 local residents in a town of less than 400 accessed employment through the CDEP. So successful was the Co-op’s operation that in 2000 it won the ‘Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Community Partnerships’.

Over the next half decade, the Co-op went from strength to strength, and took over the administration of CDEPs in outlying towns, with more than 175 participants across three communities. And then, with the abolition of ATSIC in the mid-2000s, things began to unravel.

The Howard government’s Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, and Minister for Employment, Joe Hockey decided that CDEP had become a “destination” rather than a path to “real employment”.

They made the mistake that many white bureaucrats have made, believing that CDEP was created by Aboriginal people as a path to mainstream employment. In fact, CDEP was created as a way for Aboriginal people to work in their communities, and to provide basic services in the absence of government doing its job, albeit at a greatly discounted rate.

Regardless, Brough and Hockey scaled back CDEP in urban, regional and remote centres. No thought was given to the reality that in many places – particularly those like regional NSW – CDEP was the only source of employment for Aboriginal people.
Labor went to the 2007 federal election promising to re-invigorate CDEP – in the Northern Territory for example, it was being axed as part of the NT intervention. But having won office, the Rudd government simply continued the “reforms” started by Brough and Hockey.

By 2009, three decades after it began, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin announced CDEP would be abolished in “non-remote areas with established economies”.

One of the ironies is that Macklin won office in 2007 claiming, repeatedly, that the biggest problem with the Liberals’ policies in Aboriginal affairs is they adopted a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Her CDEP policy is at best a ‘one size fits most’. It was based on nothing more than lines on a map.

The small community of Mungindi, for example, is just 150 kilometres from Toomelah. It has kept its CDEP. But Toomelah falls within 30 kilometres of a major centre – Goondiwindi – where, says Macklin, there are “local job opportunities”.

It’s the sort of policy that could only come from someone not only with no clue of the region, but no understanding of its history.

Had Macklin – or one of her advisers – read the Einfeld report then they would have realized that it was sparked by a massive riot in Goondiwindi in 1986, led by more than 100 Toomelah residents in protest against appalling levels of racial discrimination and, notably, their inability to secure employment.

And had she bothered to ask Rene Adams about the work history of the region, she would have discovered that in the 20-year history of the program in Toomelah, no single CDEP participant had ever left the program after securing a job in Goondiwindi.

“Goondiwindi is a lot better than what it was, but it’s still a racist town,” says Ms Adams.

Many local residents, no doubt, disagree. Residents like Amy Makim, the former Toomelah bureaucrat, who also serves as the president of the Goondiwindi and District Community Garden, which pitches itself as an organisation that promotes “community harmony” and where “everyone of all ages, stages, creeds, colours and persuasions” is welcome.

Even presumably, the ‘black blood mixed with white trash’ Aboriginals from Toomelah.

Ms Adam’s view is backed by Elaine Edwards, deputy chair of the Toomelah-Boggabilla Local Aboriginal Land Council, who along with other senior elders, met with Tracker in Goondiwindi recently.

They all agreed that Aboriginal people still struggle to find employment in Goondiwindi because of the colour of their skin.

And it’s not like Ms Adams didn’t try to warn the Minister personally. In 2009, prior to the abolition of CDEP, she phoned into a live interview Macklin was conducting on ABC Radio in Tamworth, ambushing her on the air.

She did it again in 2010, and 2011, and also wrote to the Department of Employment and Workplace relations on the likely impact on the community.

“We had to do reports for (the government). We predicted it would be bad, but we never predicted it would be this bad. It’s five or six times worse than we thought,” says Ms Adams.

And she wasn’t alone in warning Macklin of the impending disaster. Numerous submissions to a parliamentary inquiry into the legislation abolishing CDEP warned Macklin of the dangers of her policy, including a combined submission from Professor Jon Altman and Dr Kirrily Jordan from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR).

“Rather than the stated aim of shifting CDEP participants into so-called ‘real jobs’, the likely result is shifting people out of active work through the CDEP scheme and onto long-term income support,” they wrote. That is precisely what has occurred.

In late 2009, Ms Jordan completed a second report, this time specifically into the CDEP operations in the APY Lands in South Australia. Unlike Toomelah, the APY Lands was not considered close enough to ‘real economies’ to lose CDEP altogether, but it was slated for reform. Ms Jordan noted: “This preliminary analysis concludes that although some of the measures introduced in July 2009 have had positive impacts, the changes to the scheme itself are tending to undermine the productive capacity of CDEP and induce a return to ‘sit down money’.

“This is ostensibly what the government seeks to curtail and indeed what the CDEP scheme itself was designed to minimise.”
And the warnings to Macklin kept coming. Back in Toomelah, Darren Coyne from the Koori Mail filed a major story in February 2010, highlighting the rapid decay of the town.

“Toomelah is an Aboriginal community facing meltdown. Residents fear the closure of their CDEP may be the final nail in the community’s coffin,” Coyne reported.

“Since the CDEP shut nine months ago, the community on the NSW/Queensland border has begun to unravel. There has been a deterioration of facilities and services, an increase in crime and suicide attempts, and widespread disintegration in living conditions….”

Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin.

SO WHAT did Jenny Macklin know, and when?

Well, she’s quoted in the Koori Mail article, and she said back then precisely what she’s still saying today.

In an email to Tracker last week, Ms Macklin explained that she was aware of the problems in Toomelah, and the federal government was providing assistance.

“The Indigenous Employment Program is providing more than $1.1 million in Toomelah and Boggabilla for training, mentoring and helping local people get a job. We are also delivering $462,000 for Indigenous Community Links in Toomelah to help local people access employment services. This builds on the $450,000 provided from 2008–09 for these services.”

The strategy clearly isn’t working.

Ironically, the explanatory memorandum that accompanied Macklin’s legislation into parliament (the plain English summary to help other politicians understand what they’re voting for) stated that there would be “nil financial impact” from the proposed Bill.

Abolishing CDEP in regional communities around the nation might not have had any impact on the bottom line of Jenny Macklin’s department, but the impact on the community of Toomelah was devastating.

“All the people who were on CDEP are basically unemployed now,” says Rene Adams.

And this where the scale of the problems confronting Toomelah really starts to hit home.

With the closure of CDEP, the community store – with its two dozen employees – was forced to close.

“We lasted 26 weeks, but it finally collapsed,” says Ms Adams.

That means a loaf of bread is a 14 kilometre drive away in Boggabilla.

Under the Rudd government’s schools stimulus package, around $600,000 was spent on building a new school canteen at Toomelah primary.

It began to serve not only as a source of food for schoolchildren, but as the only ‘store’ in the community.

Today, even the school canteen lies vacant, courtesy of repeated break-ins. There is, of course, no night patrol in Toomelah anymore, since the axing of CDEP.

And no-one is cleaning up the community anymore; the cemetery crew is gone; the civil services have ground to a halt. The street lights are blacked out, there’s no-one to attend to local plumbing or basic repair and maintenance of community assets.

If Toomelah residents want work, they have to find it outside their town.

There is, of course, no public transport to and from Toomelah, save for a morning school bus.

“Residents are not allowed on it. Only school kids,” says Ms Adams. She adds that around 20 to 30 local men are now in jail.

“Mental health issues and suicides have increased. There’s more drugs, more violence, more alcohol. It’s heart-breaking to see Toomelah the way it is.”

William ‘Smiley’ Johnstone, is a well known Aboriginal leader from western NSW. In 2007, he helped the Toomelah-Boggabilla Local Aboriginal Land Council complete its Community Land and Business Plan, an over-arching document which outlines the way forward for the town.

“The community was thriving. It had its problems, like all Aboriginal communities in NSW, but there was a lot of activity there.

“I thought at the time that Toomelah had a lot of potential.”

Today, families are disintegrating and as they do community tensions are rising. Violence in the community has increased exponentially, so much so that more than 60 videos of fights between local residents have been posted on YouTube in the past year. A punch-up in the street has become the entertainment of choice for a community in serious decline.

Media – in particular Aboriginal media – have overwhelmingly missed the real story at Toomelah (see story, pages 20-21).

Both the Herald and the ABC acknowledged CDEP as one of the causes of problems in Toomelah, but no follow-up stories delved into how and why it occurred. Indeed rather than grill the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, 7.30 Report gave air-time to Mal Brough, one of the architects of the destruction of CDEP.

Brough, as always, focussed his remarks on “saving the children”, and called for the Toomelah community to be shut down. His appearance prompted zero media follow-up.

Even so, there are some hard truths that the Toomelah community must face in confronting its future.

In 2009, the Toomelah-Boggabilla Local Aboriginal Land Council lost its funding from NSWALC – a $130,000 contribution towards administrative costs – after repeatedly failing to meet legislative audit requirements (by law, NSWALC cannot fund a land council that does not properly audit its books).

The community has also made some poor decisions over housing. Against the advice of NSWALC, the LALC engaged a housing provider several years ago to manage its stock.

Within six months, the provider was in breach of his contract.

Community residents stopped paying rent to the LALC. And with no rent collections, there were no funds for repairs and maintenance on the homes.

In the LALC’s defence, it inherited some poor quality housing stock when the NSW government signed over housing to the community decades ago. But refusal to pay rent virtually guarantees poor quality housing.

Media coverage of Toomelah in particular focused on ‘raw sewerage in the streets’.

In 2009, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council forged a $200 million partnership with the NSW government to provide basic water and sewerage infrastructure upgrades to more than 60 former Aboriginal missions and reserves.

Toomelah was the first community to benefit from the roll-out.

The sewerage problems in Toomelah today are predominantly ‘beyond the fence line’ of individual properties.

That makes them the responsibility of the local housing provider engaged by the LALC.

Again, these responsibilities were not met.

There is also the none-too-small problem of local residents vandalizing the main pump which controls the town’s sewerage infrastructure. Every time it gets damaged or switched off, sewage backs up in the streets.

And vandalism isn’t just limited to basic infrastructure.

Homes that aren’t boarded up have been trashed. In the past month, two LALC owned houses in Boggabilla have been burnt to the ground.

The Toomelah-Boggabilla LALC ignored a 2011 offer from the NSW Aboriginal Land Council of an ‘intensive assistance package’.

Today, the LALC is actively trying to get back on its feet. But elders like Elaine Edwards – a long-time resident and one of the stalwarts of the community – are struggling against the tide.

The LALC office at Toomelah was recently trashed, with computers, furniture and files destroyed. That’s made it even harder for the LALC Board to meet its audit requirements.

A week before the SMH story broke, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council completed an urgent report into the community. A senior Local Aboriginal Land Council support officer was placed in the community on a full-time basis for two months, to try and assist the Toomelah-Boggabilla LALC to get back on its feet.

That officer’s stint will be completed soon. Whether or not the Governing Board of the LALC has the capacity to overcome the enormous challenges facing the community remains unknown. At best, the LALC Board will be functional again. At worst, it faces the appointment of an administrator.

In the meantime, the NSW government has announced a new program through the Department of Education, where local principals gain greater funding and flexibility to buy better outcomes for the community. The schools in Boggabilla and Toomelah have been earmarked for inclusion.

The NSW government, through Aboriginal Affairs NSW, is also looking at strategies to get Toomelah back on track. A NSW Ministerial Taskforce – which includes senior Aboriginal leaders and organisations – is due to report in a few months on ways forward for Aboriginal communities around the state.

The Taskforce is the first of its kind in the nation – never before have Aboriginal people been allowed at the cabinet table to discuss Aboriginal solutions to Aboriginal problems.

The Aboriginal community of Toomelah – and beyond – has every reason not to trust the NSW government. Brian Johnstone’s column on pages 34-35 is a case in point.

But ultimately, the solutions for Toomelah lie within Toomelah, a fact not lost on Rene Adams. She believes a good start would be returning the CDEP to Toomelah.

“Community people are still asking today, ‘What did we do wrong?’

“Aboriginal people want to work in their communities, and they have a legal right to do so.”

She says the decision to axe the program was made by people who know nothing about the community.

“Jenny’s never been here. Julia’s never been here. Kevin’s never been here. None of them have ever been here.

“But that hasn’t stopped them making decisions about Toomelah.”

And unfortunately, that mindset continues today.

The crisis meeting last week between federal and state government agencies – which included heads of departments and some of the nation’s most senior bureaucrats – was not held in Toomelah.

Instead, bureaucrats met in Goondiwindi.

Elders invited them to visit the community that afternoon, if for no other reason than to see for themselves the challenges confronting Toomelah residents.

None did, save for one official from the NSW Aboriginal Housing Office.

Despite this, Ms Adams – who attended the meeting – thought it worthwhile.

“We covered a lot of issues – health, housing, employment. They were looking at community safety, violence, child protection, and what we’ve done as a community.

“They’ve promised to come back together and further identify solutions.”

Ms Adams says the community was promised the next meeting will be held in Toomelah. Not exactly cause to celebrate, but an advance none-the-less.

• SEE ALSO Part of the solution, part of the problem

* Chris Graham is an Australian journalist specialising in Aboriginal Affairs. He has twice won the Human Rights Award for his reporting, and is a Walkley Award and a Walkley High Commendation winner. He lives in Glebe, Sydney.


  1. […] • SEE ALSO ‘White trash mixed with black blood’: The truth about Toomelah […]

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    ‘White trash mixed with black blood’: The truth about Toomelah – Chris Graham At Large

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